*NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The pilot of a civilian World War II stunt plane died Friday after the plane crashed while practicing just hours before an air show, officials said.
Jan Wildbergh, the flight leader with the Skytypers Air Show Team, died following the crash at the Oceana Naval Air Station, team sponsor GEICO Insurance said in a statement.
Larry Arken, deputy squadron commander of the six-man team, said earlier that the pilots had just finished rehearsing their routine at the Virginia Beach base and were coming in for a landing when the No. 6 plane, the last in the formation, crashed.
Arken was flying first, so he did not see the plane go down. But he said he heard from witnesses that the plane flew into the ground while still under its own power, he told The Associated Press from Oceana when reached on his cell phone.
Wildbergh trained with the Dutch Air Force, for which he flew first-generation jet fighters during the Cold War, the GEICO statement said. He moved to the U.S. to pilot private aircraft, ran a flight school and joined Skytypers in 1986.
The crash was being investigated, base spokesman Troy Snead said. The base was not open to the public when the plane crashed about noon, but some invited guests were watching the practice, Snead said.
The plane had no ejection system, and the pilot was flying too low to use his parachute, team spokesman Ralph Roberts told WAVY-TV in Portsmouth.
“He probably tried to continue to make the maneuver and save the plane, possibly by doing a belly flop,” Roberts said.
The Skytypers Air Show Team performs at shows across the country, often doing low-level flying maneuvers and creating aerial smoke messages, called skytyping, according to its Web site. A computer in the lead plane sends radio signals to the others to coordinate puffs of smoke to form words while the planes fly about 250 feet apart.
The New York City-based team consists of six SNJ-2 planes, which were used to train Allied pilots in World War II. Only about 10 of them are left in the world, according to the Web site, which says the team is the “only World War II civilian squadron flying today.”
The annual three-day air show, sponsored by the Navy, was still scheduled to begin Friday evening, Snead said. About 250,000 people are expected for exhibits and aerial performers including the Blue Angels, the Navy’s precision flying team.*